Open Innovation is a term that used to describe when companies and people literally open up their problems and issues to the world looking for advice and solutions. It is possibly the most obvious form of collaboration, writes Roger La Salle.

There are a lot of issues with the so-called ‘Open Innovation’ model – a prime example of course is ownership of intellectual property (IP). This has the potential to be a minefield if not properly understood and managed. However, before we go too far down the path of collaboration and open innovation, it may first be useful to agree on what we even mean by innovation, a word that seems to have been corrupted by so many, achieving nothing more that turning the simple into the complex!

It can be argued that innovation is the basis for all things new and better. But what inspires innovation and new ideas? More to the point, what is the link between an innovative or inventive idea and an outcome?

If we think of innovation when applied to building a business and making money, we need to think about the risks in business. In most cases when an idea is being pursued and a technology development is being undertaken, whether it be an IT solution, new app, a tangible product or a new service, in essence there are only two risks that need to be considered.

The first is what we may refer to as technical risk, which means: can the technologist achieve the desired outcome? In science and technology, for the most part, the technologist will deliver a solution or at least be able to give some insight as to the risks involved. For example, if we were to ask a technologist to give us anti-gravity boots, he/she would easily be able to assign the risks associated with that outcome. In this case of course the risk would be enormous.On the other hand if we asked for a clock with hands made from LED strips that were clearly visible in darkness, the answer would be that this is achievable with no technical risk. In short, technical risk is something we can generally measure and quantify.

However, assuming I did achieve the technical outcome with my innovation, the real questions to ask – and which too many innovators and even large companies get so wrong so often – are “Can I sell it?” and “Will there be a market?”

Market risk is without doubt out the single biggest risk in bringing new products to market.

With this in mind we may be able to coin a definition of innovation that effectively reduces market risk, and with that we can explore the opportunity landscape to hopefully create successful innovation.

When we look at some products from the past – Google, the iPhone, MasterCard and Visa, Nokia, Seiko, the IBM PC and Windows – one thing these all have in common is that none were first to market. Indeed all were followers of some prior art. And yet they were all great successes. In short the secret to mitigating market risk is to find a product or service everybody is buying and simply change it in some way to add value.

Thus a definition for innovation can follow.

The common synonyms for innovation are improvement or advancement. Further, if we take it that people buy things because they see value for money, then perhaps the best definition for innovation is ‘Change that Adds Value’. Indeed this derivation and definition was coined in my book ‘Think New’ many years ago. This definition has now been adopted by many organisations and innovation practitioners worldwide.

Whereas innovation may be about making changes for improvement, inventions are more about novelty. Novelty of course is an essential ingredient to a successful patent application. Having said that, there are many innovations that do contain elements of novelty and are thus also patentable. Indeed one may argue there are few absolutely new inventions, though those that may fall into this category include the electric lightbulb, the transistor device, the atomic bomb, radar and the laser.

Given this understanding of innovation, the task now falls to the creation of innovations. How does one do that and why is collaboration so vital to successful innovation?

The secret to this comes from three elements, all essential ingredients that underpin successful innovation:

  • Observation
  • Knowhow born of experience
  • Connections or collaborations


The key to finding opportunities for innovation lies in observation – looking at the way people interact with the world, with products and services, and finding the gaps and value-added opportunities. Of course the idea embodied in the relatively new concept of Design Thinking asks one to look at the customer. However, from my reading of this methodology, the fact is that it fails to ask how one looks at the customer. Furthermore it should also ask you to look at the customer’s customer. For example, is the retailer your customer, or the purchaser and user of your product? The packaging industry seems to have worked that one out, for example in attending to supermarket shelf storage space and customer convenience in opening and storing products!

Indeed there are five things that Design Thinking seems to miss in exploring customer behaviour and the way people interact with products and the world. I addressed these in my book ‘Think Next’, published over a decade ago. They are: predictable activity; widespread activity; repetitious activity; comparative activity; and trends.

If we explore our customer with these five “seeds” of opportunity, the game gets a lot easier. It’s made even easier if you use the eight thinking triggers I refer to as ‘Catalysts’ to stimulate thoughts about these seeds. This is what I refer to as ‘Opportunity Capture’.

Knowhow born of experience

Young children are often good at seeing things that are often overlooked by people who have been doing the same thing the same way for too long. The young, uninitiated and untarnished with tradition, are often very good at seeing what may be possible, but what they lack is knowledge and experience in understanding how such opportunities may be addressed. This is where experience and an older head is so valuable in innovation outcomes.

There is a great saying: “Knowledge is not wisdom, wisdom comes from experience and experience comes with age.”

Below are some examples that illustrate why knowledge born of experience is so important:

  • An inventor correctly realised that the power cord on a hairdresser’s hairdryer was a problem. His solution was a battery-operated hairdryer. What his lack of knowledge failed to identify was that, though the idea had some merit, even a car battery would not have the capacity to run a hairdryer. The inventor toiled away at this innovation for far too long and spent quite a lot of money before acquiring the knowledge that at this point in battery development, his idea was simply impractical.
  • A building company had four separate, very large innovation teams wrestling to find ways to identify if, after scaffolding had been put in place and certified as safe, it was subsequently being moved by subcontractors and perhaps rendered unsafe. When the problem was put to an older head the answer was simple – something the inexperienced innovation teams had never even heard of. Tie the scaffolding to the building with Tamper Tape that fractures on movement. This was a great solution, but one the young innovators were simply too inexperienced to have even considered.
  • An inventor proposed a warning device that alerted parents if a child had unfastened their seatbelt. This was nice in theory, but overlooked the fact that many cars already have alarms to identify if someone is sitting on a seat with the seatbelt unfastened. Perhaps an easier solution could be a seat belt clip latch that requires stronger hands to undo, or maybe a two-handed operation action much like a safety interlock on a power tool. We refer to this as a ‘re-question’. It asks you to explore the real issue and decide what is really the best question to be asked in addressing a problem.

In my world we refer to the type of connections from problem to solution as ‘connecting the dots’. One of the great skills of clever entrepreneurs and innovators is to see the linkages between seemingly unrelated issues. This is where broadly skilled technologists and open-minded thinkers come to the fore.

For example, suppose I run a lumber business, cutting up trees to provide timber for the building industry. What possible connection does that have with mathematics? Perhaps none, you may think; old-fashioned timber managers may certainly have thought so. But in fact linear programming, while quite an old science these days, can optimise the way timber is cut to provide massive additional profits. But in the closed non-collaborative model, such knowledge may never be acquired. Similarly:

  • How could technologies developed in putting a man on the Moon possibly connect to the business of pots and pans? The answer: Teflon coating.
  • Clocks and radio paging – is there a connection? Indeed there is. Imagine a clock equipped with a radio paging receiver to receive time signals and keep perfect time, even updating for summertime changes. Such clocks were developed in Australia long before cellphones with perfect time.
  • How about the packaging business and home insulation? Of course, use bubble wrap as the ideal insulator. It’s lightweight, cheap, and easy to install, with fire-retardant grades also available.
  • Or optics and home insulation? Of course, use a reflective coating on one side of the bubble wrap to reflect radiated heat.

And what about physiotherapy and reducing carbon emissions? The toothbrush and ceramic crystals? Extruded plastic “core flute” sheeting and aluminium extrusions? The connections in each of these cases spawned real businesses.

There is an endless list of these seemingly unrelated disciplines that can be connected with appropriate knowledge and collaboration between disciplines. Indeed this is why the new paradigm of ‘Opportunity Capture’ is emerging as the preferred approach to the more narrow discipline of traditional innovation. All these numerous examples show that perhaps inexperienced people may have great value in identifying possible innovation opportunities, but really fail to deliver when it comes to real and viable outcomes.

Connections and collaborations

There are few cases where one individual or even one organisation can solve all the problems and take an idea from mind to market without assistance – or without collaboration.

Possibly the best example is in the automotive sector. Auto-makers are really just assemblers of parts made in most cases by third parties. No auto-maker can make all the chassis components, the bodywork, the paint or the rubber, the bushes, shock absorbers, alternators, windscreen wipers, the complex electronics, the air conditioners, or even something as simple as the seats and seat-belts. Of course tyres, bearings and even engine parts are provided by collaborating third-party suppliers.

Collaboration and finding the best parties to assist you on your innovation journey is essential, whether it is in the design, the engineering, the manufacture, the business planning and even the sale & marketing. Indeed even the very largest manufacturers, from food to cosmetics, usually outsource their packaging and their advertising campaigns. This is collaboration at its best, and collaboration is definitely the name of the game when it comes to successful innovation outcomes.

Roger La Salle trains people in innovation, marketing and the new emerging art of Opportunity Capture. His ‘Matrix Thinking’ methodology is now used in organisations in more than 29 countries. La Salle is a sought-after speaker on innovation, opportunity and business development, is the author of four books, and is a director and former CEO of the Innovation Centre of Victoria (INNOVIC) as well as a number of companies, both in Australia and overseas.